Lives of the fellows

John Francis Williams

b.8 October 1899 d.4 July 1971
MB BS Melb(1924) MD(1925) MRCP(1926) DPM(1927) FRACP(1938) FRCP(1969)

John Francis Williams was born at Tatura, a country town in Victoria. He was the elder son of John Williams, a merchant, who died within five years of his birth. Williams’ mother moved to Melbourne with her four young children, where she built up a successful business. John attended State School for his early education and then went to Wesley College, one of the leading public schools, where he remained until 1917. In his final year he was a prefect, rowed in the school crew, won the Alexander Wame Scholarship, and also gained a Senior Government Scholarship to the University.

On leaving school, however, he enlisted in the AIF and went overseas, after training, as a reinforcement to the Field Artillery, arriving in France only a few days before the Armistice in 1918. He shortly returned to Australia, was admitted to Queen’s College of the University of Melbourne to take up his medical course. He continued his rowing in intercollegiate races and also rowed in the Melbourne University crew, obtaining a Blue. John graduated with honours in medicine in 1924 and became resident medical officer at the Melbourne Hospital. A few years before this, H.F. Maudsley had been appointed in charge of the first psychiatric clinic in Melbourne with the title of Honorary Neuro-Psychiatrist to the Melbourne Hospital. Under the stimulus of Dr. Maudsley and a course of lectures on psychological medicine given by J.W. Springthorpe, then consulting physician to the Hospital, Williams became interested in this subject. After leaving the Melbourne Hospital he worked at the Royal Park Receiving House, obtaining a Doctorate in Medicine at the University of Melbourne. In 1925 he married Anne Elizabeth, youngest daughter of Sir Willian McBeath KBE, a well known merchant resident in Toorak. Shortly afterwards he and his wife travelled to England where John worked for two years at the National Hospitals, Queen Square, clerking for Gordon Holmes and also at Bethlem and Maudsley Hospitals. He became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians, London in 1926 and took the London DPM in 1927. Towards the close of his career he was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1969, an honour which he greatly appreciated. As a young psychiatrist in London he was fortunate to come under the influence of men such as Mapother, Golla and Bernard Hart. On the neurological side, his experience with Gordon Holmes was further enriched by contact with F.M.R. Walshe and Kinnier Wilson. Following his period at the Maudsley he went to the Cassell Hospital where he worked with T.A. Ross and R.D. Gillespie. At heart ‘John F.’, as he was called, always remained a Maudsley man, with, in his later years, a particular regard for Aubrey Lewis.

He returned to Australia in 1928 and was appointed clinical assistant to Hal Maudsley at the Melbourne Hospital, and within a short time because the first honorary psychiatrist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, a teaching hospital attached to the University of Melbourne. In 1929 he was appointed honorary psychiatrist to the Children’s Hospital where in 1923 Professor R.J.A. Berry, then Professor of Anatomy, University of Melbourne, had begun his research into the correlation of child intelligence with cranial and vital capacity. In addition, in 1925, a small department had been created to investigate retarded children. Professor Berry resigned to return to England in 1929, and Williams commenced his long association with the Children’s Hospital, where he pioneered the study and treatment of psychological disorders in childhood, and fathered one of the earliest Child Guidance Clinics. He soon realized that the foundations of mental health or ill health were laid in the early developmental years. His nursery school and psychiatric clinic had humble beginnings on the flat roof of the Out-Patient Department, with only a small shelter for rainy days. He stressed the need for appointing professional staff, at first psychologist and speech therapist, on a full time basis. As time went on he extended the facilities by adding social workers and remedial teachers.

In 1930 the Victorian Council for Mental Hygiene was formed under the Presidency of Sir Richard Stawell, the Founding Members including many of the leading doctors and educationists in Melbourne. With Hal Maudsley, Guy Springthorpe and John Williams as Secretaries, this Council carried out a series of studies in mental hygiene in the State of Victoria and initiated important reforms. In 1952 Williams undertook a tour of the main child psychiatric hospitals and clinics in the United States and Great Britain on behalf of the Royal Children’s Hospital. In this he was aided by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. His services were used in World War 2 when, at the request of the Director General of Medical Services, he visited Queensland and other centres to investigate psychiatric disorders of servicemen. He also served as psychiatrist on the first Officer Pre-Selection Board, and in this capacity toured all states of Australia and New Zealand. He coped with psychiatric casualties from New Guinea, the Northern theatres of War, and prisoners of war from Singapore.

When the Royal Australasian College of Physicians was founded in 1938 he was a Foundation Fellow, and in 1946 when the Australasian Association of Psychiatrists was formed, he was a Foundation Member and Counsellor. In 1951 he was President of the Association. He was also a Foundation Fellow of the Australian Paediatric Association. His Presidential address to the Australian Association of Psychiatrists - ‘Psychiatric Facts and Phantasies’ - will long be remembered as a provocative antidote to psychiatric self-sufficiency. On the foundation in 1931 of the Victoria Medico-Legal Society, Williams became interested in this branch of psychological medicine, and later became President of the Society. When a new Mental Hygiene Authority was set up in Victoria following the recommendations of Alexander Kennedy, Williams sat on the Advisory Committee as a representative of private psychiatrists. In later years Williams was in large measure responsible for the foundation of a Department of Psychiatry at the University of Melbourne. With Guy Springthorpe, he secured a very generous donation from Dr. Una Porter, a psychiatrist, and her brother Mr. Cato, which made an early appointment practicable, and Williams, on his own initiative, went to London for the purpose of interviewing prospective candidates for the Chair, and recommended Brian Vavis from the Maudsley, who became the first Professor. In December, 1966, the Victorian Branch of the Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists established the John F. Williams Prize, to be awarded yearly in the form of an inscribed medallion. This Prize is awarded for the best contribution to psychiatry from a member of the Victorian Branch.

A brief account of John’s many activities does not give an accurate picture of the man himself. He did not tolerate people whom he considered foolish. In discussion he would appear puzzled at first, sometimes scornful, particularly if confronted with shows of omniscience or speculation based on inadequate facts. At meetings he usually sat, listening intently, in the front row where he might fidget a little, slowly shaking his head, in readiness for the time of discussion. He had the virtue of never appearing sure, particularly in the realm of theory. By some younger psychiatrists he was thought to be too hostile to psychoanalysis. He was, however, widely read in the life and work of the pioneers, Freud, Jung, Jones, Adler and other followers. The two disciplines which he favoured were the psychobiological approach of the Maudsley and Johns Hopkins and some aspects of Freudian psychology, without accepting everything as gospel. This attitude of mind perhaps hardened a little after his visit to the USA in the 50s, when it was almost obligatory to have a personal analysis in order to succeed.

As well as possessing the keenest critical faculties he had a great ability to like people, both patients and fellow workers, and on this basis he built up his department at the Children’s Hospital. His chief recreations were trout fishing in the remote streams in North Eastern Victoria, finally reached by pack horse, and where no telephones intruded. He was also a keen motorist and thought nothing of driving 400 miles to his seaside house on the south coast of New South Wales for a long weekend. He had four children; his eldest daughter married a doctor and they have five children.

John and his wife Anne lived in a splendid partnership of affection and loyalty. In the last few years of his life he endured a progressive and painful illness - Paget’s disease, with terminal carcinoma — with the courage and stoicism his many friends would have expected.

AGH Springthorpe

(Volume VI, page 461)

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